Florence, Italy is perhaps the most wonderful place to walk that I have ever been in. In a discussion I had recently about the city, I remembered a post architect and writer Steve Mouzon did a few years ago on the true cost of sprawl. Steve wondered why cities give up so much land that supports no retail, no residential, pays no taxes, just to move people out of town on highways. He showed this extraordinary coupling of two photographs at the same scale: one of Florence, Italy and one of an interchange in Atlanta, Georgia. Steve wrote:
The need for speed devours huge chunks of American cities and leaves the edges of the expressways worthless. Busy streets, for almost all of human history, created the greatest real estate value because they delivered customers and clients to the businesses operating there. This in turn cultivated the highest tax revenues in town, both from higher property taxes and from elevated sales taxes. But you can't set up shop on the side of an expressway. How can cities afford to spend so much to create thoroughfares with no adjoining property value?
Steve notes that the entire Duomo cathedral could fit in one of the loops of the interchange. You could spend days walking the streets of Florence (I have) and find three hundred and fifty thousand residents shopping, eating, selling wonderful leather goods, going to fabulous galleries and palaces and museums. It even has a a grade separated elevated pedestrian skywalk.
Because of the need for speed, Atlanta has a great big expensive hole the size of Florence that does very little beside getting "a small fraction of Atlanta workers to their jobs a bit sooner, barring any accidents."
I have thought that Jim Kunstler was being his usual over-the-top self when he called the American suburban experiment "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." But when you compare that photo of Atlanta to Florence, you can see that he was right.